As a newcomer to Australia at the turn of this century, Jessica Rowe was probably one of the first Australian media personalities I started to recognise. She was the stylish lady who could pull off a short blond haircut and who gave me my evening news.
Being a journalism student then, I found her admirable—intelligent, successful and attractive. But what I never expected from Rowe was an effusive warmth and a sense of overflowing happiness and joy that was rather contagious. She was, after all, so serious as Sydney’s Channel Ten news presenter.
Rowe was extremely apologetic for being slightly late for our interview, because it had taken her longer than expected to get her daughters Allegra, aged four, and two-year-old Giselle to sleep. I thought it apt, considering the reason for our conversation.
Rowe had just completed her recently released book called Love Wisdom Motherhood: Conversations with Inspiring Women, a collection of interviews with a number of iconic Australian women about their experiences of being a mother. And I was interested to chat with her about it and find out more about her views on motherhood.
“I would like to think of the book as sort of an informal mothers’ group, for mums of any age and at any stage to pick it up and go, ‘I want to find out about their story’ or read something and think, they grappled with that, I understand that,” she tells me.
When Allegra was born, says Rowe, “I’d never felt so lonely and isolated in my life. It was not what I had expected.” And so Rowe started planning for and then writing a book to make sure that other mothers don’t “feel quite so on their own, because we all share the same fears, worries and insecurities.”
And through the process of writing Love Wisdom Motherhood, Rowe discovered that all the women—“women who seemingly have it all together—from actor Lisa McCune to Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac—struggled with juggling life, career and motherhood. On top of that, they all faced the same daunting and haunting question: Am I a good enough mother?
“It’s one of those universal questions,” Rowe says. “[Becoming a mum is] the best thing that I’ve ever done but it’s the hardest thing. You want to get it right and I think we put so much pressure on ourselves.
“There’s no right or wrong ways to do it and the juggle is tough. And what it seems to be is that at different times of your life, certain things take precedence. . . . As [Governor-General of Australia] Quentin Bryce said to me, ‘Yes, we can have it all, but not all at the same time. Something has to give.’ And that’s where it comes back to being gentle on yourself.”
But despite what one has to give up with becoming a mother, Rowe was quick to reject the idea of having it any other way.
“It doesn’t matter what people tell you beforehand, nothing prepares you for this seismic shift to your life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.
“I know that my life is richer and I feel I’m a more tired person, but I’m a better person for being a mum. Being a mum has taught me so much about myself and it teaches you about patience and living in the moment, seeing things from their perspective and slowing down . . . we’re so busy in our lives we don’t have those moments to stop, but to look at them through the wonder of a child’s eye is wonderful. It’s lovely to rediscover that part of yourself again.”
As a mother of two young girls and having chatted with more than 10 mothers for her book, I was curious to know if there was anything Rowe wished she’d known before becoming a mum. Her answer was matter-of-fact: “Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have really known it, because nothing prepares you [for being a mother].”
The only thing she wished she had done, she says with a laugh, was to have made more of her sleep when the opportunity came, then went on to ponder the existence of “sleep banks where you could just build it up and take withdrawals.”
Six weeks after Allegra was born, Rowe started to realise she was experiencing more than the baby blues. A visit to a psychiatrist confirmed she was suffering from postnatal depression (PND). But as she writes in Love Wisdom Motherhood, it was not before she felt like a “freak, some crazy woman.”
She says, “Because being a mum is meant to be the happiest time in your life and when it isn’t not, [you wonder] ‘what is wrong with me?’ And that’s where the stigma is because you’re thinking, if I say this, what would people think of me?”
Rowe has since recovered from PND, but remains a strong advocate when it comes to raising awareness of the illness. She is beyondblue’s perinatal ambassador and says, “If you even have an inkling that you’re not feeling quite right, then you’ve got to listen to that and talk to somebody close to you. Talk to your GP or midwife. One in five mums will have PND, so that’s a lot of mums that’s going to affect. When you’re going through it, you feel like you’re the only one and that you must be a terrible mother. That’s nonsense. PND is an illness. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. It is an illness. And if you get treatment early, you get through it that much faster and you can then focus on your beautiful new baby and your family. You don’t need to suffer in silence.”
One of Rowe’s biggest challenges with becoming a mum was identity. “I really struggled early on, [since] I was no longer working full-time and my identity had been tied up with my work for so long. And when I didn’t have that, it was kind of, ‘well, I’m a mum now but what does that mean for me, for my identity and the person that I was before and the person that I am now?’ ”
To make matters worse, around the time of Rowe’s first pregnancy, her career was shrouded in controversy—first with an alleged contract breach and then a lacklustre reception by viewers as host of Channel Nine’s Today program, followed shortly by the channel’s less than complimentary description of her. A year later, news.com.au reported that Rowe had left Channel Nine “after a breakdown in negotiations over her return from maternity leave.”
The decision to give up her career for full-time motherhood was difficult “because I lost my job while I was on maternity leave. It made it doubly hard because I felt that I didn’t have a choice. Suddenly, what I had known was wrenched from under me, so that was very hard.”
But Rowe hasn’t held on to the hurt, saying, “Looking back and thinking now, I’m really lucky that I had the time and still have the time to be with my babies. Yes, it was difficult to have that taken from me and to think about what happened to my career that I’ve spent a lifetime building up, but I could focus on being with my girls.”
Rowe now enjoys doing freelance newsreading and fill-in work and considers herself lucky to be able to fit her work around her girls. “My career does matter because it is very much a part of me, but I’ve learned that it isn’t all of me,” she says.
And she is coming to terms with who she is now. “Yes, I am a mum, but I am also Jessica, with interests, desires and things separate from who my children are, as well as my children. It’s a work-in-progress, really.”
So after talking to so many women—mothers—what did Rowe think was the definition of a good mother?
“We all have different sorts of ideas or definitions about what makes a good mum but it’s more what I think I want to do [for my own children]. I want to make sure that I’m there for my girls and that I listen. I think it’s really important to be a good listener and to be with them and to really be in the moment with them. But most of all I just want my girls to be happy and to know how much I love them. And that I’m here for them.”
Love Wisdom Motherhood: Conversations with Inspiring Women, written by Jessica Rowe, is published by Allen & Unwin, Australia.